July 12. It’s Week 4/Day 3 of Summer Resident Camp at Camp Tanasi.
The whiteboard hanging in Lighton Lodge says the high for the day is around 90 degrees with a chance of rain. There’s a slight haze in the air and a constant chirp of bugs that makes it look and sound even more like mid-July.
Lunch is wrapping up and campers of all ages are tending to their kapers, which is a Girl Scout tradition of dividing up common responsibilities. Some girls are Earthkeepers – and collect food scraps for compost – or they’re helping wipe tables and stack chairs. A completely normal impromptu dance party breaks out among the chores as campers and staff alike “dance their way out.”
Everyone is preparing to head back to their units for Turtle Time, which is to say: REST TIME. And it’s a good thing, too, since the heat of the day is settling in and there’s an afternoon full of activities ahead.
I join a different group, who instead, is hiking about 15 minutes outside Main Camp to the Whippoorwill unit – their home for the week. The Wilderness I campers, or Wild Women, as they call themselves, are high school-age campers who want a more primitive outdoor experience. They hike in each morning for breakfast, do normal camp activities until lunch, and then hike out for the rest of the day.
They’ve been at it for two nights already, but since I’m new to the group, I hike with my pack for the night, bedroll hanging off the side, water bottle swinging from a carabiner. I probably packed too much, but Be Prepared, right?
The six campers have three counselors: Tidbit, Giggles, and Cosmo. Part of the tradition and lore of being on camp staff is getting a camp name and getting to create your outdoor persona. These counselors are all new to the Wilderness program, but far from new to Girl Scout camp and the outdoors. Cosmo has been coming to Tanasi for years, and just earned her Gold Award a few years ago.
We hike along the path to Whippoorwill, following Norris Lake, until we reach a quiet clearing. There’s a shelter, a fire circle, and nine hammocks strung up in the shade. It’s incredibly serene – way different from scenes from Main Camp.
I’m setting up my hammock when the thunder starts rumbling in the distance. Tidbit’s radio crackles something about a “hammerhead,” which I find out later is code for a thunderstorm rolling in. Tidbit instructs the campers to grab “Big Green” and get it set up. They pull out a giant green tarp and begin to rig it up with four poles to create a shelter from the rain. The rain shows up fast and we scramble to finish the shelter.
We huddle under Big Green and wait out the storm, and then it’s on to the first activities: building a fire and splitting wood to make coal-burned spoons.
According to the Wilderness Survival Guide that each girl received, each camper has a kaper: there are Wood Gatherers, Dishwashers, Firemasters, Cooks, Clean-up crew, and Shelter Cleaners.
The guide also contains pointers on how to pack a backpack (heaviest items at the bottom, don’t forget to leave room for food) diagrams of common knots and how they’re used, three basic styles of fires to build (A-frame, teepeee, log cabin) and pictures of things like posion ivy and common pests.
Everyone gathers wood for the fire, but since it just rained, there is little to be found that’s dry and usable. It’s a group effort to find enough pieces to get it started.
The girls also take turns with a handsaw, chopping bigger pieces of wood for the spoons, as Cosmo and Giggles look on. I’m really impressed by how confidently and swiftly each girl maneuvers the saw – Lumberjack badge, anyone?
From there, the Firemasters build a fire and then let it burn down to shimmering coals. Every girl will get a hot coal to sit on the end of her piece of wood, which will become the spoon’s bowl. She’ll carefully hold the coal in place with a stick, while blowing on it to help burn a hollowed out place in the wood. Once the bowl has reached the girl’s desired shape, she’ll take her green Camp Tanasi Wilderness knife and whittle the handle.
Whittling is pretty therapeutic. We all sit under Big Green, whittling and telling corny jokes (“Did you hear the one about the pizza? Nah, it’s too cheesy.”) Girls remind each other to mind their “blood circle,” or the area around you when you extend your arms. If you’re in someone’s blood circle while holding a knife – you are TOO close.
We cut up (both literally and figuratively) and before we know it, it’s time to start preparing dinner, so the Firemasters need to get to work again. The Cooks venture into the shelter to grab the food pack for the night and being getting everything ready. Dinner is burritos, which somehow taste better when sitting outside on a carpet of leaves. Every girl has a job to make the meal come together, and they are all carried out gracefully and without complaint. It’s assumed that if you’ve decided to be a Wild Woman – that you’re here to learn and contribute to the group.
The girls vote on their nightly activity – it’s a split vote – but they decide to hike back into Main Camp to join everyone else for a movie night in Lighton Lodge. There are reminders to grab rain jacket and flashlights, and then we hike back, singing the entire way. There’s a lot of singing at Girl Scout camp, no matter what program you’re in, so you’d better get used to it! A lot of repeat-after-me songs, a lot of nonsensical words and storylines, and a lot of laughing.
Movie night is chill. Some Wild Women decide to sit and make friendship bracelets during the movie, so I follow suit. A second-year Wild Woman teaches me how to make a spiral knot bracelet. She’s good – bracelets up and down both arms already – but she’s signed up for two more sessions of bracelet-making tomorrow.
We hike back out to Whippoorwill in the dark and circle up in the shelter for a bit of reflection on the day. Tidbit asks the questions: “What did you do to help someone today and how did someone help you?” Every girl pauses, thinking back on the day. Helping each other out in the rain is a big theme, and helping to keep the fire going. Teamwork is an important part of being a Wild Woman. If someone decides they don’t want to pitch in, then the whole group will suffer.
Girl Scout Cookies get passed around as a treat – of course!– and we all mosey off to our hammocks. There’s no real lights-out time, since we’re already in the full dark. We can hear chattering in the girls’ hammock area for a little while, and then quiet. I brush my teeth next to a tree while looking up at the stars, wondering if I’ll be able to climb into my hammock without a running start…
Read Part 2!